Early Report Card Grades for College Basketball's Top Freshmen in 2019-20

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 26, 2019

Early Report Card Grades for College Basketball's Top Freshmen in 2019-20

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    North Carolina PG Cole Anthony
    North Carolina PG Cole AnthonyKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Cole Anthony and Vernon Carey Jr. have been everything that North Carolina and Duke hoped they would be early on in this 2019-20 men's college basketball season.

    Scottie Lewis and Jaden McDaniels, on the other hand, have left Florida and Washington hoping that things get better than these first three weeks.

    Most of these guys have only played five or six games, which doesn't seem like much. However, it's a significant enough sample size when you consider they're going to play in around 35 games before declaring for the NBA draft. (Or, in James Wiseman's unique case, about 20 games.)

    Grades are liable to change considerably between now and the end of March Madness. Slow starters may thrive in conference play. Guys who have blasted off like rocket ships might flame out by January. You never know.

    But based on what we've seen thus far, we've assigned a single report-card grade for the guys who were expected to be this year's top 10 freshmen.

    Players are listed in ascending order of their 247 Sports Composite recruiting ranking, omitting No. 5 RJ Hampton, who is playing professionally overseas.

10. Kahlil Whitney, Kentucky

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    Kahlil Whitney
    Kahlil WhitneyAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 6.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG

    Kentucky's EJ Montgomery received one of the worst grades when we did this piece last November, and early returns are that Big Blue Nation has another highly touted disappointment on its hands.

    Kahlil Whitney skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings late in high school, impressing scouts with his length and raw athleticism. In Kentucky's most recent game against Lamar, he showed off some of that athleticism with a LeBron James-esque chase-down block of a would-be breakaway layup. One needn't squint much to see a modern-day three-and-D wing with NBA potential.

    But the bouncy wing/forward is still trying to find his footing within Kentucky's half-court offense, which is also struggling to figure out its identity. Whitney only had four points and four rebounds in the Champions Classic against Michigan State, and things haven't gotten any better since then.

    Even though he has started all six games for the Wildcats, his role already appears to be diminishing.

    With Montgomery returning from a three-game absence (ankle injury), Whitney only played 14 minutes against Mount St. Mary's on Friday and followed that up with a 13-minute outing against Lamar on Sunday. And it wasn't due to foul trouble either night. He just hasn't been effective, shooting 1-of-7 in those limited minutes against Lamar.

    There's a good chance he'll improve with time. Most Wildcats do in their lone season with head coach John Calipari. But right now, Whitney seems to be stuck in no man's land as a 3.5. He doesn't shoot often enough or well enough to be a true wing, but he doesn't rebound well enough to be a conventional frontcourt guy, either.

    This is a bit of a blast from the past, but Whitney kind of reminds me of junior-year DeAndre Liggins. The 6'6" wing/forward started for most of that 2010-11 season and ranked second on the roster in minutes played, but he wasn't Kentucky's best player at anything. He was a plus-defender but something of a jack of all trades, master of none.

    Whitney has more potential than that, but it's where he's at for now.

    Grade: D+

9. Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky

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    Tyrese Maxey
    Tyrese MaxeyAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 16.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.8 APG, 34.5% 3PT

    When he's on, Tyrese Maxey has been an A-plus.

    Maxey poured in 26 points in the season-opening win over Michigan State, and he did so with a Malik Monk level of swagger. When he drained that pull-up three-pointer from well beyond the arc with one minute remaining to essentially seal the game, I was ready to buy some stock in his National Player of the Year campaign. That's how impressive he was against the preseason No. 1 team.

    He also paced the Wildcats to a comfortable victory Sunday night against Lamar, efficiently scoring 21 points on 11 field-goal attempts.

    Between those two games, Maxey shot 7-of-14 from three and committed just two turnovers.

    But during the four games in between, Maxey was far from on, committing multiple turnovers in each contest while shooting 3-of-15 from downtown.

    It's not exactly his fault the Wildcats lost to Evansville and struggled with Utah Valley. The onus of the loss falls on Ashton Hagans' shoulders, and they were just a little short-staffed against UVU with EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley both unable to play.

    That said, if Champions Classic Maxey had shown up for those two games, we'd still be talking about an undefeated and pretty much unanimous No. 1-ranked Kentucky.

    As just mentioned when discussing Kahlil Whitney's early grade, the Wildcats are still very much in "let's figure out what we've got" mode. They don't have any elite three-point shooters, and while Nick Richards has been much more impactful in the paint than he was in his first two seasons in Lexington, they don't exactly have an Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns or Julius Randle manning the frontcourt, either.

    The opportunity is right there for Maxey to become "the guy" for Kentucky. Most assumed in the preseason that he would be this team's leading scorer, and thus far, he is. But we're still waiting to see if he'll more consistently become a takeover type of leader. If and when he does, the Wildcats just might have a lottery pick after all.

    Grade: B+

8. Nico Mannion, Arizona

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    Nico Mannion
    Nico MannionRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 14.8 PPG, 5.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 48.0% 3PT

    Arizona has won four of its first six games by at least a 30-point margin, and first-year point guard Nico Mannion is the biggest reason the Wildcats are well on their way to bouncing all the way back from last year's atypical 15-loss fiasco.

    Aside from a rather inexplicable dud against Arizona's weakest opponent of the seasonsix points, three assists and three turnovers against San Jose StateMannion has been exactly the star that was advertised.

    In the early statement win over Illinois, he had 23 points and nine assists and was the first line of a defense that forced 22 turnovers. Sunday night's win over Long Beach State was almost identical: 22 points and eight assists from Mannion with 21 turnovers forced by the defense.

    He has been lethal from three-point range, too, converting on 12 of his 25 attempts from distance.

    What's terrifying for the rest of the nation is that was supposed to be his weakness. Mannion has great vision and a knack for finding open teammates, enough leaping ability to throw down some highlight-reel dunks and the touch/instinct to hit floaters in the lane. So if he keeps making threes at better than a 35 percent clip, he's going to be one of the toughest players for opposing teams to guard.

    His bag of tricks runneth over, if you will.

    Keep an eye out for Dec. 7 and 14. Arizona hasn't faced much of a schedule yet, but it will battle Baylor and Gonzaga on those days. If Mannion continues to do his thing against that level of competition, he's going to enter league play as the favorite for Pac-12 POY.

    We'll dock his grade slightly for that SJSU performance. After all, it is one-sixth of his resume at this point. But to echo the sage advice of Thorny in Super Troopers: "That little guy? I wouldn't worry about that little guy."

    Grade: A-

7. Jaden McDaniels, Washington

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    Jaden McDaniels
    Jaden McDanielsElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 13.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 BPG

    Jaden McDaniels has never met a shot he didn't like. But for Washington's sake, maybe he should.

    This criticism feels a bit hollow shortly after an 88-69 win over San Diego in which he scored 20 points on 10 field-goal attempts in what was easily Washington's most impressive team effort on offense thus far.

    In the four games prior to Sunday night, though, McDaniels scored 45 points while shooting 16-of-52 (30.8 percent) from the field. That's a paltry 0.87 points per shot, and he racked up more turnovers (17) than made buckets (16) during that stretch.

    It's not like the Huskies went through a murderer's row of opponents, either. The neutral-site game against Tennessee was a stiff challenge, for sure, but McDaniels was also wildly inefficient against Mount St. Mary's, Maine and Montana.

    But taken in conjunction with his impressive season opener against Baylor (18 points on 10 shots with seven rebounds), this performance against San Diego gives us hope he can right the ship and work his way back to the projected No. 1 pick status he held in January.

    The turnovers are a bigger concern than the shooting, though.

    We know McDaniels has a silky smooth stroke and the ability to create his own offense, even if he has been inconsistent about showing it through his first six games. However, a forward committing multiple turnovers every game and averaging 4.0 per night is a considerable red flag.

    At least he has been solid on defense and is contributing nicely in the rebound and assist departments. That's helping him make a positive contribution while working through his early difficulties.

    Grade: C-

6. Scottie Lewis, Florida

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    Scottie Lewis
    Scottie LewisJessica Hill/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 8.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.1 SPG

    At a national level, the immediate success rate on consensus top-20 recruits is pretty high.

    Using last year's class as an example, 13 of the top 20 guys either went one-and-done (11) or went pro out of high school (two), and there's no question that Charles Bassey, Tre Jones, Jalen Smith and Ashton Hagans could've gone to the NBA if they wanted to. Most years over the past decade have produced a similar ratio.

    But for some reason, Florida has had dreadful luck with supposed can't-miss talent.

    Chris Walker (No. 7 in 2013) was a total bust. Kasey Hill (No. 8 in 2013) was a quality defender for his four seasons with the Gators, but he couldn't shoot and never made it to the NBA. Devin Robinson (No. 18 in 2014) eventually became a key contributor as a junior, but his season-long struggles as a freshman were a big reason the Gators went 16-17 that year.

    That's the full list of top-20 recruits to sign with Florida from 2012-18. Not a success story in the bunch.

    Scottie Lewis is on a better trajectory than those three former Gators, but not by much.

    Similar to the aforementioned Hill, Lewis has been quite the asset on defense and quite the liability when he tees up a jumper. He has had at least one block and one steal in five of seven contests, but he is 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) from three-point range and is shooting just 38.0 percent from the field.

    To the folks who scouted Lewis in high school, this is no big surprise. His mid-range and perimeter shot were the biggest red flags. But he's so athletically gifted and defensive-minded that he's the type of guy who could have a 10-year run in the NBA if he just develops a somewhat respectable jumper.

    Sunday night's 1-of-7 performance against Xavier was further proof that's still a work in progress. The good news is each of the other four starters scored at least 13 points, though. If that starts happening with any regularity, at least Lewis won't need to force as much on offense.

    Grade: C+

5. Vernon Carey Jr., Duke

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    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 18.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG

    It took a little while for Vernon Carey Jr. to get rolling, but watch out for this runaway freight train.

    Carey was an afterthought in the season-opening win over Kansas in the Champions Classic. In that one, Cassius Stanley was the biggest star among Duke's annual crop of excellent freshmen, and the sloppiness that resulted in 42 combined turnovers was a much bigger story than the 11 points, six rebounds and two blocks from Duke's center.

    A similar situation played out in the subsequent game against Colorado State, in which Carey managed just 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes before fouling out.

    It has been all double-doubles since then, though.

    He had 17 and 10 against Central Arkansas, as well as 20 and 14 in a closer-than-it-should-have-been home win over Georgia State. In the Empire Classic, he destroyed California to the tune of 31 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks, and then he helped will Duke to victory over Georgetown with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

    Of the two games in NYC, the one against Georgetown was his most impressive.

    Forgive the pun that will be used often this season, but Carey carried the Blue Devils in that first half. While starters Tre Jones, Stanley and Matthew Hurt shot a combined 0-of-10 from the field, Carey scored 16 of the team's 33 points to keep Georgetown, which led by as many as 11 points, from running away with the game. (Duke would eventually get the W.)

    Because of Carey's emergence in the post, Jones won't need to create as much offense for himself as he did in the first few games, which is excellent news for the Blue Devils. Jones is a great facilitator and defender, but he's not built to be a leading scorer. And it's looking like Carey is going to become for Jones what Jahlil Okafor was to Jones' older brother, Tyus.

    Much like Big Jah, though, if there's one glaring weakness in Carey's game thus far, it's the free-throw line. The big man draws a lot of contact, but he's only shooting 59 percent (23-of-39)and several of his six misses against Georgetown never even had a prayer of going in. It's not a massive concern yet, but it's something to keep an eye on.

    Grade: A

4. Cole Anthony, North Carolina

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    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 22.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 38.2% 3PT

    The Cole Anthony experience has already been an incredible ride.

    The highly touted combo guard stormed onto the college scene with 34 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the season opener against Notre Dame. Not only did he rack up some serious stats, but he was also instrumental in turning that game around. During the 20-6 run midway through the second half that flipped a three-point deficit into an 11-point lead, Anthony scored 13 of the 20 points and assisted on an Andrew Platek triple.

    Anthony followed it up two days later with another double-double, going for 20 and 10 against UNC-Wilmington. He took a break from the rebounds in game No. 3 against Gardner-Webb, but he still scored 28 and had four steals in that one. And then in Wednesday's win over Elon, Anthony almost messed around and got a triple-double, finishing with 10 rebounds, nine points and eight assists.

    As great as he has been, efficiency is a legitimate early concern.

    UNC-W, G-W and Elon aren't exactly ACC-level foes, but Anthony shot a combined 11-of-32 (34.4 percent) from inside the arc, scored 57 points on 55 total field-goal attempts and committed 10 turnovers. If he's going to continue taking a Trae Young-like 20 shots per game, he needs to start converting a higher percentage of them.

    The good news is that fellow freshman Armando Bacot has joined the party.

    After a combined total of seven points and nine rebounds in his first two games, Bacot has recorded back-to-back double-doubles, most recently a 22-point, 14-rebound performance against Elon. If he and Garrison Brooks remain reliable threats in the post, it both takes pressure off Anthony and gives UNC's point guard more weapons to utilize.

    Business is about to pick up in a hurry, though. North Carolina has the Battle 4 Atlantis coming up, followed by games against Ohio State, Virginia and Gonzaga between Dec. 4-18. Anthony has already been impressive, but we're going to learn a lot more about his game and his leadership during that gauntlet.

    Grade: A-

3. Isaiah Stewart, Washington

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    Isaiah Stewart
    Isaiah StewartElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 17.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.2 BPG

    While fellow top-10 recruit Jaden McDaniels has struggled, Isaiah Stewart is already staking his claim as one of the most valuable freshmen in the nation.

    Stewart is a force of nature in the paint, leading the Huskies in points, rebounds and blocks. He has scored at least 14 points in each contest and has yet to shoot worse than 50 percent from the field in any game.

    In the opener against Baylor, he finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. A week later against Tennessee, he recorded his first career double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) and was the only Huskies starter who didn't disappoint in that loss. And those were the only two games thus far in which he wasn't the KenPom.com game MVP.

    Speaking of that website of tempo-free statistical analysis, the only elements in which Washington ranks in the top 10 percent nationally are two-point field-goal defense, block percentage and overall adjusted defensive efficiency. The Huskies also thrived in those areas last year, but it's remarkable that they lost five of their top six players and still have those strengths.

    Baylor's two primary big men shot 7-of-25 against Washington. Mount St. Mary's and Montana each shot below 29 percent from inside the arc. And it's not going to get any easier to score against this team as the young guys continue to figure out where they belong within the confines of head coach Mike Hopkins' "West Coast Syracuse" zone D.

    Stewart is the biggest reason they are thriving on that end.

    And if the three-point stroke (0-of-5) never comes along, that's OK. Stewart does have a nice mid-range jumper and does more than enough elsewhere to be a star without a perimeter game.

    Grade: A+

2. Anthony Edwards, Georgia

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    Anthony Edwards
    Anthony EdwardsGregory Payan/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 16.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.2 SPG

    How you feel about Anthony Edwards depends entirely on which part of his games you've watched because he has gotten out to dreadfully slow starts in each contest.

    In the first 12 minutes of the season opener against Western Carolina, Edwards was 1-of-6 from the field with two points and one assist. Over the final 28 minutes, he shot 6-of-10, scored 22 points and racked up four steals and two assists.

    Game No. 2 against The Citadel told a similar story. After 16 minutes, he had missed each of his five field-goal attempts and had a line of three points, one assist and one steal. In the next 24 minutes, he was 10-of-18 from the field for 26 points with three assists and two steals.

    Once more for good measure: Edwards was 0-of-3 with two points at halftime against Georgia Tech. But he shot 5-of-12 in the second half, adding 16 points, two assists and a steal.

    It wasn't a specific, identical juncture in each game at which he flipped the switch. However, if we call those segments Part A and Part B, that's a collective line of 1-of-14 for seven points, two assists and one steal in Part A, then 21-of-40 for 64 points with seven assists and seven steals in Part B.

    It's like he's a diesel engine and needs the first few media timeouts to get warmed up.

    Against Delaware State and Dayton, though, he never actually got warm, finishing each of those contests with just six points. So, basically, he has been excellent for 72 minutes of Georgia's season, but nonexistent for the other 128.

    Hopefully, he figures out how to get into a groove in the first 10 minutes of a game at some point this season.

    Grade: B-

1. James Wiseman, Memphis

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    Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 19.7 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG

    We won't see James Wiseman again until mid-January because of the eligibility battle that dominated headlines for the first two weeks of the season. But the limited opportunity to see him in action was impressive.

    Unsurprisingly, South Carolina State had no answer for Wiseman in the season opener. Memphis' 7'1" phenom had 28 points and 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes. He legitimately could have gone for 50 and 20 if head coach Penny Hardaway felt like turning him completely loose.

    Three days laterjust a few hours after his family filed for a temporary restraining order that enabled him to continue playing while fighting the NCAA's eligibility rulinghe made each of his four field-goal attempts against Illinois-Chicago while finishing with 17 points, nine rebounds and five blocks.

    Early foul trouble kept him from ever getting into a groove in what is temporarily his final game against Oregon, but he scored 14 points in the second half and still managed to put together a double-double in 22 minutes against a pretty solid team.

    In those three games, he averaged 34.2 points, 18.6 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per 40 minutes. In case it needs to be explicitly stated: That's quite good.

    If we're nitpicking, though, where's the perimeter game?

    Part of the allure with Wiseman in high school was his ability to stretch the floor as a gigantic, unguardable lefty, but 17 of his 20 made buckets have been layups or dunks. He has only attempted one three-pointer thus far, though it was at least a nice-looking miss.

    It's an incomplete grade and will be for another seven weeks, but the early returns were promising.

    Grade: A